Five cities across the United States are testing a new national 911 system that would allow communications with police and other emergency personnel by text message and take advantage of the latest technology to pinpoint accident scenes.

According to USA Today, call centers in Rochester, N.Y; Bozeman, Mont.; King County, Wash.; St. Paul; and Fort Wayne, Ind. began testing the Department of Transportation's Next Generation 9-1-1 system in June with the goal of replacing the 40-year-old technology that governs how the nation's 6,000-plus 911 call centers operate.

"This is a long-term vision of getting what we built over the last 40 years to today's technology," John Chiaramonte, an associate with Booz Allen Hamilton, a Virginia consulting firm hired by the government to help research and design the system, said Tuesday at the first of five regional presentations at the test cites.

Chiaramonte said the goals of the system include being able to take 911 calls that come via text message or through Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) providers such as Skype and Vonage. The system also aims to receive traffic accident data immediately from navigation services such as OnStar.

Under the new system, emergency personnel could more quickly pin down the location of a call from a wireless network. The nation's 911 call centers would be more uniform and networked so that a call to a busy or incapacitated 911 center could instantly be routed to another center acting as a backup, Chiaramonte said.

"Communication devices and systems are advancing rapidly," says Linda Dodge, public safety coordinator with the Department of Transportation's Intelligent Transportation Systems' joint program office. "We need to be sure emergency communications are able to evolve at the same time."

Dodge told USA Today that the government has spent $5.6 million on the Next Generation 9-1-1 project, mostly on research. The tests will end in November, and the data will go to a joint Transportation Department/Department of Commerce National 911 Office.

It could take eight to 10 years for all the nation's 911 centers to upgrade to the new technology, Chiaramonte said. But John Merklinger, director of the Rochester/Monroe County (N.Y.) Emergency Communications Department, said he would plan to implement some of the technology within the next year to 18 months.

An analysis by Booz Allen Hamilton estimates the cost of the New Generation system could be less than the current one over the next 20 years. It estimates the system to cost $57 billion to $64 billion in that span, compared to $55 billion to $79 billion for the current system, Chiaramonte said.